Produce Pioneer Frieda Rapoport Caplan Dies at 96
Frieda Rapoport Caplan, the “beloved founder, trailblazer and kiwi queen” behind Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda's Specialty Produce, as noted on the company’s Facebook page, has died after a brief illness at the age of 96. She was still coming into the office until recently, filing invoices and keeping a sharp eye on produce trends.
The first woman to own and run her own produce business in Los Angeles’ Wholesale Produce Market and the United States, Caplan not only introduced the kiwi – a.k.a. the Chinese gooseberry, which she promptly renamed – to the American market in 1962, but also revolutionized the way produce offerings were marketed, adding recipes and cooking instructions to packaging to spur consumer acceptance of unusual items, as reported in The Los Angeles Times.
“Who the hell had heard of jicama or spaghetti squash?” Ben Faber, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor who works with specialty crops, told the Times. “We were a meat and potatoes society in the 1960s,” he added. “She changed our eating habits.... Frieda was able to tap into aspirations that people had after the Second World War ... something new and different other than mac ‘n’ cheese.”
Among the other specialty items popularized by Frieda’s were habañero peppers and black garlic, as well as striking purple produce such as Stokes Purple Sweet Potatoes and Baby Purple Brussels Sprouts.
Starting out at a bookkeeper at a produce business run by her husband’s aunt and uncle, Caplan eventually began her own business focusing on exotic produce items.
Despite the fact that it’s now a commonly purchased fruit in the United States, it took almost a decade for kiwi to catch on with the American public. Ironically, Caplan became allergic to the fruit in later life, and even though she shaped several generations’ approaches to purchasing and preparing produce, she never learned to cook.
She even supplied “alien”-looking fruit for “Star Trek” episodes, which helped lift sales. In 2015, Caplan herself stepped into the spotlight as the subject of “Fear No Fruit,” a documentary about her life and career.
By 2018, Frieda’s Inc. had grown into a $50-million-plus business with 75 full-time and 110 part-time employees, an 81,000-square-foot warehouse in Los Alamitos, and customers from around the globe.
Caplan’s survivors include her daughters Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda’s, and Jackie Caplan Wiggins, the company’s COO, and her granddaughter Alex Berkley, Frieda’s sales manager.